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A nation must think before it acts.
In a twist of the old adage that all politics is local—even international politics—last week the Foreign Policy Research Institute (FPRI) may have been a victim of the escalating tensions between Iran and the United States. On New Year’s Day, a U.S. holiday when the response time and the mechanisms to take down a fraudulent website would be slower than usual, an article designed to spread misinformation was posted to the website www.fpri-security.org. The spoofing was crude and lazy, but effective. The article’s subject matter would suggest that the author of the post was committed to spreading a false narrative that the United States would (or could) rewrite the Iraqi constitution, or cast it aside to oppress Iraqi Shia.
The article was spread on WhatsApp and Telegram in Arabic, which we suspect was the original language of the post. The syntax and grammar clearly indicated that the author was not a native English speaker. The language used throughout the piece suggested to us that it was translated from Arabic or Farsi into English. It was surely not from the purported author, Dr. Richard D. Hooker, who had served on the National Security Council (NSC) as senior director for Russia, Europe, and NATO until summer 2018.
As in all of these cases, attribution is difficult and complex and beyond the capabilities of FPRI, but our educated guess is that the most likely perpetrator would appear to be Iran as this is consistent with the regime’s modus operandi and desire to shift the target of unrest to the U.S. and off itself. But this is also a classic Russian disinformation technique, and a Russian hand can never be ruled out entirely.
Upon initial analysis, the spoofed site’s domain was first registered in August 2019, which would suggest that the perpetrator had considered using FPRI as a vehicle to spread disinformation in summer 2019. However, the website was not used to spread disinformation until late December 2019, following an Iranian proxy group’s attack on a military base in Iraq that killed an American contractor and wounded U.S. soldiers. In response, the Trump administration targeted Kata’ib Hezbollah (KH) bases in Iraq and Syria because the militia is purported to have been behind the attack. KH also has strong links to Iran.
The timing of the fake article’s publication appears to have been part of a disinformation campaign launched following the strike on KH targets. Following the article’s release, the Iraqi President’s office denied that the article reflected reality, but the fact that a statement had to be issued suggested that this piece of disinformation had become widespread. The spoofed site took users to real FPRI articles and pages upon further clicking—suggesting that the post was legitimate. The website has been taken down, but the removal of the site is less important than the outcome of the initial intent: To use FPRI as a vehicle to provide legitimacy for the disinformation. The disinformation has fed other platforms and, now, may have enough traction to feed anti-American conspiracy theories and undermine Iraqi politicians.
FPRI acted quickly to remove the website, but the spoof appears to have been, from the outset, designed to be a “hit and run” style disinformation effort. This is a warning for others to be vigilant and to consider how they may be used to spread false narratives that could undermine American foreign policy.